Countering the use of chemical weapons in Syria: Options for supporting international norms and institutions


Una Becker-Jakob Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Paper no. 63 June, 2019

For more than six years the people of Syria and the international community have had to face the fact that chemical weapons have become part of the weapons arsenal in the Syrian civil war. By using these weapons, those responsible—the Syrian Government included—have violated one of the most robust taboos in international humanitarian law. In recent years, the international community, the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have found creative ways to address this situation, but no strategy has so far succeeded in truly redressing the problem. Several other potentially useful institutions, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the compliance mechanisms of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), cannot yet be employed.1 This is mostly due to the political dynamics within these institutions, in which global power politics, strategic considerations and national interests—in particular Russia’s protection of the current Syrian Government, seemingly at all costs—impede the effective handling of the crisis. The dynamic evolution and adaptation of the instruments at the international community’s disposal has therefore been accompanied by an unprecedented polarization of the relevant institutions and by political manoeuvring

that threatens to undermine the OPCW’s effectiveness in addressing chemical weapon use.
This paper provides some background on the international norm on the non-use of chemical weapons, describes pertinent developments in Syria since 2012 with a special focus on 2018, and analyses the current state of play for the OPCW and chemical weapons disarmament. It contains reflections on the strength of the non-use norm, on the relevance of efforts to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapon attacks and to create the conditions to eventually hold them to account, and on the need to maintain the OPCW’s viability in the face of the current crisis. The final section contains options and recommendations for action in these three areas.